MGH Institute Nursing Faculty Member is Working to Avert a Looming Health Crisis

People in the coming years who will have surgery, go through cancer treatment, or give birth may be in trouble due to the rise in bacteria that don’t respond to antibiotics.

Antibiotic Awareness Weeks runs Nov. 13-20 across the globe. MGH Institute of Health Professions School of Nursing Assistant Professor Rita Olans, RN, DNP, is one of several health care professionals who are sounding the alarm about decades of the overuse of antibiotics for health issues both large and small.

A combination of over-prescribing antibiotics and bacteria becoming increasingly resistant, says Olans, could become a crisis unless this misuse is reversed.

“This is a looming crisis,” says Olans, who is leading efforts to increase the role of nurses – who comprise 80 percent of the country’s health care workers – to antimicrobial stewardship efforts. “Despite all we are doing on stewardship, the bacteria will continue to mutate, but will do so more slowly. Our antibiotic use is putting this mutation ‘on steroids,’ making mutation much faster and deadlier. We have to do something about this quickly because if we don’t there is the possibility that without effective antibiotics, surgery becomes more risky, chemotherapy becomes more risky, and even giving birth becomes more risky.”

Olans, who has taught in the MGH Institute’s School of Nursing since 2012, will be among an interdisciplinary panel conducting a workshop on Nov. 15 designed for quality improvement professionals in acute care settings which builds on NQF’s National Quality Partners Playbook: Antibiotic Stewardship in Acute Care, which is based on CDC’s Core Elements of Hospital Antibiotic Stewardship Programs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year in the United States at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. At least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections, while many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection. The CDC says antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs used in human medicine, but estimates up to 50 percent prescribed for people are not needed or are not optimally effective as prescribed.

In addition, the World Health Organization earlier this month urged countries to restrict the routine use of antibiotics given animals to promote growth and prevent diseases during food production, which it says is the largest use of the drugs and also is causing a rise of antibiotic resistance among bacteria.

Olans has joined forces with the American Nurses Association, which had been doing its own work to raise awareness around antibiotic resistance. “Dr. Srinivasan brought Rita’s work to the ANA’s attention,” says Sharon Morgan, the ANA’s senior policy advisor. Morgan considers Olans a kindred spirit: “We are both very interested and outspoken about how nurses can be a bridge between all aspects of care.” With funding from the CDC, the ANA convened an antimicrobial stewardship working group and is using Olans’ work as a framework to better define nurses’ contributions to stewardship efforts. The CDC/ANA will soon publish the joint white paper defining nurses’ role in antimicrobial stewardship.

All of this momentum is good news for health professionals and their patients. “Every time I give a talk, I close it with a photo of my grandson,” says Olans. “Antibiotic resistance is not just a health hazard, it threatens our future. It is going to take every health professional, whether working in acute, long-term care or outpatient care, to address this crisis. This is a local, national, and global imperative. We need to make sure future generations will have ways to manage infections successfully.”

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